The Brilliance of Early David Lean: The Passionate Friends (1949)

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To view The Passionate Friends click here.

A few months ago, here on Streamline, I wrote about David Lean’s film adaptation of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit in 1945 (you can read it here), and how it is among very few films I consider perfect. As I’ve been reintroduced to much of Lean’s early directorial efforts, I have come to realize that he rarely had missteps throughout his career, making at least eight truly “perfect” films. Needless to say, and without any hesitation, I consider David Lean to be one of the greatest directors of all time. And while I am well aware that I am not alone in this opinion, as Lean is highly regarded amongst both critics and film lovers, I believe that his earlier work has been seriously undervalued, especially when held up against the sweeping epics for which he is best known, such as 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia from 1962.

There’s no doubt these epics are cinematic masterpieces, defining Lean’s career and cementing his artistic contributions to the early years of large format theatrical presentations, such as 70mm. (One of several formats primarily created to compete with the rising popularity of television programming.) These contributions cannot and should not be ignored. But in his mastery of filmmaking throughout the course of his career, and the early development of what would later be recognized as his truly unique directorial style (one which heavily relied upon stunning visuals to drive the story), Lean cut his teeth on more intimate, character-driven stories like Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter, also made in 1945 (and written about here). He managed to not only tell a fascinating, dialogue-heavy story, but he also cleverly inserted his unique brand of visual storytelling whenever he possibly could. This is none more evident than in Lean’s rarely seen 1949 drama The Passionate Friends.

Based on the 1913 novel by author H.G. Wells, The Passionate Friends is a heartbreaking story about romance, regret and sustaining love. While not at all related to Brief Encounter, Lean’s adaptation of Wells’s story feels very much like a spiritual sequel to the earlier film, which starred Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Also starring Howard, opposite Ann Todd and Claude Rains, The Passionate Friends recounts the romance between Mary and Steven (Todd and Howard), which began when the two lovers were very young. Afraid to commit to Steven and marry him, Mary calls off their relationship, and eventually marries the much older businessman Howard Justin, played by Claude Rains. The relationship between Mary and Howard is overall a good one, but Mary knowingly exchanged true love with Steven for stability and affection with Howard. Several years into her marriage to Howard, Mary is reacquainted with Steven after a chance meeting. Although Howard is well aware of their romantic past, he approves of Mary developing a friendship with Steven. Howard believes that Mary is truly happy in their marriage, and has no interest in rekindling the romance with her former beau. But Howard is wrong in his assumptions, and before long Mary and Steven fall head first into a secret love affair, picking up where they left off several years before.

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Told in flashback, with some voice narration given by Todd (much like Brief Encounter), The Passionate Friends is a bittersweet account of the complicated nature of love and friendship, and the differences between the spontaneous, fleeting nature of romance and the loving devotion required for a successful relationship and continued marriage. At first, Howard believes romance to be an unrealistic and unnecessary part of marriage. Instead, he much prefers loyalty and friendship, which unsurprisingly, doesn’t meet all of Mary’s needs, ultimately provoking her to seek an affair with Steven. It isn’t until his notion of happiness is threatened by Steven’s lingering presence, which has consumed every single part of Mary’s being, that Howard begins to see the importance of passionate love in their relationship.

PASSIONATE FRIENDS, THE (1949)

David Lean tells a tragic love story which, much like Brief Encounter, delicately balances the difficult ethics of an extra-marital affair, without downplaying the emotional toll of sacrificing a satisfying romance. And unlike other romantic dramas, this story forsakes the typical tacked-on happy ending for one that is far more realistic; an ending that is both devastating and joyous. Much like real love and relationships, The Passionate Friends is messy and complicated and– most importantly–honest. These qualities, in addition to Lean’s exceptional talents behind the camera, make The Passionate Friends another one of the director’s many perfect films.

Jill Blake

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11 Responses The Brilliance of Early David Lean: The Passionate Friends (1949)
Posted By Jim Ott : August 8, 2017 12:47 pm

I would be interested in a list of the other films you regard as perfect. Thanks for the review; I very much like Brief Encounter but have not seen Passionate Friends.

Posted By robbushblog : August 8, 2017 4:07 pm

This is a pretty darn good movie. And you’re right – the ending feels much more honest and less tacked on than so many other romantic films of the era. And early Lean is almost always beautifully made. I wasn’t as crazy about OLIVER TWIST as I am about so many other early Lean films, but it has its good qualities too. I can’t help but compare THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS to BRIEF ENCOUNTER in my mind, with BRIEF ENCOUNTER coming out on top each time, but THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS is definitely worth a look as well. It is well-written, beautifully photographed, and wonderfully acted.

Posted By Jill Blake : August 8, 2017 8:54 pm

Jim–

If you like BRIEF ENCOUNTER I think you will really like THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS. Just a beautiful film.

And my list of perfect films? I’ll give you a few off the top of my head: THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, DODSWORTH, THE APARTMENT, NOTORIOUS, STAGECOACH, LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, LIBELED LADY, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, OUR HOSPITALITY, SEVEN SAMURAI, BRINGING UP BABY, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931), ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS.

Posted By robbushblog : August 8, 2017 8:59 pm

I could add a few to that list. I will hold off however.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : August 9, 2017 7:20 am

I could also add a few to that list. And take a few off of it. “Perfect” films are few and far between. You list 15, all made between 1931 and 1974, all but one in English. I’m not sure there have ever been 15 “perfect” films, and I can think of more than one “perfect” foreign film, and at least one “perfect” film made after 1974 (although the director thought his was work was butchered in editing). There is no such thing as “perfect”, there is no such thing as objectivity.

Posted By Jill Blake : August 9, 2017 11:49 am

Ed– My list was off the cuff in response to Jim’s comment, and meant simply for some fun conversation. It is by no means definitive; just the ones I could think of right away. If I were to really sit down and think about this, I would definitely add more foreign and modern films, and perhaps some of the ones listed would change. I also realize that my observations are opinions. In my piece on BLITHE SPIRIT, which I linked to in this post, I talked about the things *I believe* make a film “perfect.”

Of course there’s no such thing as perfection. But when examining film, especially movies made by those we consider masters of the craft (Lean, Wilder, Wyler, Scorsese, Powell and Pressburger, Hitchcock, etc…), I think it’s important to identify the best examples of the craft. And of course what I consider to be the greatest (i.e. perfect) examples aren’t necessarily what you consider to be the greatest examples. And my hope would be that we could discuss, and perhaps both our lists would be better for it.

Posted By robbushblog : August 9, 2017 12:12 pm

I have the greatest list. My list is yuge!

Posted By Jill Blake : August 9, 2017 12:55 pm

Robbushblog–

Ha! In all seriousness, I would be interested in your picks. :)

Posted By robbushblog : August 9, 2017 1:17 pm

I’ll think on that.

Posted By mdr : August 11, 2017 11:12 am

Jill, terrific list “off the cuff”! Unfortunately I haven’t seen Blithe Spirit. Hope that TCM airs it some day as I’ve yet to see it and it doesn’t appear to be on DVD as yet.

Speaking of perfect films, I just saw (again) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn on TCM, and would certainly add it to my list, which has considerable overlap with yours.

Posted By Marco : August 11, 2017 10:12 pm

As far as Westerns go, I think that RIO GRANDE, SHANE, YELLOW SKY, THE HANGING TREE, BLOOD ON THE MOON, RAWHIDE, and THE CULPEPPER CATTLE COMPANY are nearly perfect movies, because they are so authentic and realistic.

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